POLITICS
06/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Obama Can Fight On National Security

Republicans clearly think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the chink in Sen. Barack Obama's national security armor. In its rapid response emails, the McCain campaign routinely describes Obama's preference for diplomacy with Iran as evidence of his poor judgment overall. But will the idea of talking to Iran become this fall's "global test" -- the unfortunate phrase John Kerry delivered to Rove and Co. in 2004?

Not if Obama stays quick on his feet, say some leading progressive thinkers in the foreign policy arena. Former Sen. Gary Hart, Center for American Progress senior fellow Brian Katulis, and Ploughshares Fund president Joe Cirincione offered the following tips for the likely Democratic nominee as he prepares to go 13 rounds with Sen. John McCain in the national security ring.

1. Forget "Strong and Wrong"

President Bill Clinton famously explained the GOP's 2002 midterm victories by saying, "when people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right." The distinction spooked many Democrats until 2006, when polls found most Americans were tired of Iraq and ready to start diplomacy with Iran. Given that change over time, it seems progressive notions of strength and rightness may no longer be mutually exclusive in the minds of voters. "Democrats can take the principled position on diplomacy, or the cancellation of unnecessary defense programs, and not be hurt politically as long as [they] express those views powerfully and with deep conviction," Cirincione said.

In short: when the "right" position is in danger of being tarred as weak, Obama should double up on strong language.

"We've accepted [being defined as weak] into our bloodstream," Katulis said. "It's just a lack of confidence. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a room briefing candidates, where paid political consultants said 'when Iraq comes up, pivot to health care or the economy.' It's instinctual. But the question to ask is, 'What war can't the Republicans screw up?' And hold these officials accountable. ... There's near parity [between the parties] on security. Part of that is just showing up and being willing to engage in this debate -- and not psychologically approaching that debate from position of weakness."

2. Stay Away from the Weeds

Engaging on national security doesn't mean the American public wants to hear about all the different roles played by Iran's Supreme Leader, president and clerics. "The broad-stroke argument is sell-able to the American public," Katulis said. "As long as Obama keeps it at the broader level, as opposed to the minute detail, he can do well. ... When people look at the world, the Middle East, they understand we've seen our interests suffering for seven years."

Staying on message with broad themes should also help Obama avoid getting tripped up in future debates. This week, the GOP sought to paint Obama's suggestion that he might not meet with Ahmadinejad (in favor of other, more powerful Iranian leaders) as backtracking. Obama may have gotten a little too complex for his own good in that mini-news cycle.

3. Define Danger Up

In keeping with the idea of big themes, former Sen. Gary Hart advised Obama to redefine and expand the list of dangers facing the country.

"It's the duty of Democrats to educate and convince people that security in the 21st century is not a cold war concept that can simply be reduced to a military solution," Hart said. "Global warming is a treat to our security. Viral pandemics are a threat. ... Republicans in the age of Reagan managed to dominate security concerns by reducing them to issues that could only be solved by the military, and convincing people that they were the only ones willing to use the military to solve them."

Katulis encouraged Obama not to become an incessant downer regarding the failures of the Bush administration and the challenges ahead. Luckily for Obama, he has a tried and true message that can keep him from becoming that guy at the party.

4. Remember Hope

A little sugar can help those bitter lessons of the last seven years go down easier. "If you look at the polling data, Americans have lost a bit of confidence [regarding foreign affairs]," Katulis said. "Obama can advance the pragmatic recognition of 'we can do this.' We shouldn't be inspired by fear; we can take back control of events. Empowerment and efficacy are tools we can use to get ourselves out of this hole that we've dug in the last couple years."

5. Connect Back to the American Story

According to Cirincione, Obama can frame all of these tactical recommendations in the historic language of American vales. "He can say: we're the ones standing up for the American tradition. That we're not doing this for some nebulous internationalist principle, but that what he's representing is rooted in America's core values. ... And by adding that he will will protect America better than the other guys have been doing."